Towards the beginning of the second act of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, Jonah Hill’s mathlete Peter Brand explains to Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane that the team he dreams of creating for the Oakland A’s is essentially “an island of misfit toys.” Peter makes this admission without irony or snark – to him, those misfits are the ones with the true potential, and Peter understands that the potential to be a winner is much more important than the (very distinct) possibly of being a loser. And yet, Moneyball is a film about being a loser, even if the losers we come to know are losers in a very particular context. Can you be a professional athlete that makes a solid six-figure paycheck and still be a loser? Can you be a popular professional sports organization with millions of dollars to spend, your own stadium, and an accomplished legacy and still be a loser? Can you be Brad Pitt and still be a loser? Yes, yes, and yes (sort of) – and not just a loser in the most literal sense (you know, someone who loses), but in the larger sense of someone who just doesn’t win.
As general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy is tasked with crafting a professional baseball team with significantly less funding than the other heavy-hitting teams in their league. It’s that lack of cash that leads to a worst-case scenario play for Beane and the A’s – losing out on the American League West championship, the team then lost its three big stars (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen). No money, no big names, no hope – it’s no surprise that Beane shows up in the offices of the Cleveland Indians, looking for some trades or some cash that will keep his team from getting struck out before they even get back in the game. But it is a surprise that Billy comes back from Cleveland, not with a new star player, but with a new assistant. The kid can’t throw a ball, but he can crunch some numbers – and that’s exactly what’s going to change the A’s. Meet Peter Brand, Yale graduate, whiz kid, economics major, devotee of Bill James’s “sabermetrics” for recognizing potential in undervalued players.
Based on the real-life 2002 baseball season, Billy and Peter set out to design a team that goes against all of baseball’s traditional ideas and accepted wisdom. A player everyone thinks is too old? He’s in. The party boy younger brother of a star? Put him in the outfield. The catcher who can’t catch anymore? That’s our first baseman. Will this giant mess work? Well, maybe, but if it means we get more scenes of Pitt and Hill spitballing ideas and techniques and possibilities at each other, then Moneyball has already hit it way out of the park. An odd couple of the highest order, watching Billy and Peter go back and forth is a sport in and of itself, and it’s the sort that (pardon the increasing sports puns) is more than worth the price of admission.
Pitt’s a rare beast – a marquee name with a marquee face who also happens to be an extremely talented performer. Pitt’s take on Beane isn’t an easy one – an actor with less charm would likely make him a damn hard pill to swallow, a guy with some latent rage issues (Beane is prone to throwing large items against walls when he’s angry) who keeps himself at a distance from his team (makes it easier to cut them). But all that tough cookie talk hides what’s at Billy’s core – a perpetual sense of not being good enough, laced up with some serious baseball-induced superstition that makes Billy’s new way of doing things that much more miraculous.
Director Miller made a splash with 2005’s Capote, and he’s brought back star Philip Seymour Hoffman to haunt the hallways of the clubhouse and scowl away games in the dugout as manager Art Howe. Art’s got no say in the team that Billy and Peter put together, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let them tell him how to put them on the field. Even Billy is reduced to near-begging Art to use the team the way it’s meant to be used – until Billy remembers just who he is and slashes and burns his way through the line-up midway through the season in one of the film’s best and most flat-out frisky sequences. Beyond reacting (in limited doses) to Pitt and Hill, Hoffman doesn’t have much to do here. It’s nice to see him on the field, but he doesn’t even get a fly ball to catch (you know, cinematically).
As with most feature films rooted in real-life events, Moneyball takes some creative license to hit hard. For one, Brand’s first day on the job kicks off with the whiz kid walking into the Coliseum just as the massive banners for Damon, Giambi, and Isringhausen are being taken down. Later, Beane takes life direction from a song his young daughter sings to him. Even the name “Peter Brand” is a fake one – a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta, a graduate of Harvard (not Yale). But the sabermetrics and nontraditional method of building a team that Brand brings to the table remain rooted in truth and in DePodesta’s own career and workmanship.
Though Moneyball spends precious little time on actual baseball-playing scenes (and, in fact, gives startlingly short shrift to one of the most important games the A’s play during this particular season), Miller has crafted one exquisite sequence of play that’s so well-done, so utterly infused with emotion, that even people who hate baseball may tear up by its end. Moneyball is a film about losers, but when those losers do manage to pull out a win, it’s truly something to cheer.
The Upside: No, you really don’t need to know much about baseball or math or professional sports in general to get what’s being tossed around in Moneyball. Or to catch it (tee hee).
The Downside: Baseball fanatics could be let down by the lack of sports sequences, eggheads who loved the book may feel put out by the more narrative-heavy flick, and anyone looking for any sort of feminine influence will find none.
On the Side: If anyone can illuminate for me why Pitt’s Billy Beane wears a wedding ring when he’s so clearly divorced, I’d be eternally grateful.